By Wang Jiewen

From a young age, Chinese children are schooled on the supposed differences between boys and girls, with girls learning their virtue lies in being gentle, delicate, sensitive, and “feminine.” Our most fundamental ways of thinking and being are rooted in this value system, from the clothes we wear to the careers we pursue. Yet despite these constraints, some women have defied the binds of convention and celebrated their toughness and strength. Chinese society’s response to these women has been to give them a label: “nühanzi (女汉子)”, or literally, “women who are men.”

Originally, the term “nühanzi” was used as a weapon of derision against women who subverted hegemonic gender expectations. But as the fight for gender equality has gained momentum, with capable and smart women rejecting traditional norms and living by their own rules, “nühanzi” has evolved from a term of denigration to one of pride.

“Nühanzi” women have banded together online, sharing stories of rebellion on the @Nuhanzi_life Instagram and wearing jewelry and clothes decorated with the word “nühanzi.” And while it may not be identified by name, the spirit of nühanzi has made its way into mainstream pop culture. Wonder Woman, with her blend of “feminine” compassion and “masculine” strength, is a nühanzi herself. Pink embodied the nühanzi attitude during her VMAs speech, when she responded to her daughter’s insecurities about being told she looked like a boy with, “We don’t change. We take the gravel and the shell and we make a pearl. And we help other people to change so they can see more kinds of beauty.” Through moments like these, the nühanzi have gone from rejects on the outskirts of society to members of a strong, thriving global community.

In today’s world of cutthroat competition, being a nühanzi is not just empowering but also practical. What could be more important for success than possessing the wherewithal for self-reliance? A culture that demands women’s self-sufficiency while attaching derogatory labels to those who succeed at independence is a paradoxical one indeed. Thankfully, the many women reclaiming this label have cultivated an audacity of spirit that refuses to back down in a world of men. One such woman is tattoo artist Zhuo Dan Ting.

Head-to-Toe Nühanzi

Unlike the girls who delicately proclaim their nühanzi status after toting around a few heavy bags, Ting, who owns and runs Shanghai Tattoo, is the real deal. 35-year-old Ting is originally from Harbin, yet even in Shanghai — a city known for its diverse and colourful individuals — she stands out from the crowd. First, there’s her eye-catching green hair, but even more captivating are the colorful tattoos that cover nearly every inch of her skin, decorating her chest, arms, legs, and even her knuckles with gorgeous leaves, feathers, and stars. Her appearance is powerful, impactful, and a clear departure from that of the traditional Chinese woman.

Ting takes no offense at being called a nühanzi. In fact, she’s proud of it. She views the label as a badge of independence and self-sufficiency, separating her from the pampered and powdered ladies who stay at home, fretting over their nails. Her definition of “nühanzi” is simple: “a woman with a job,” she says. A woman who can take care of herself and be entirely self-sufficient — that’s what a nühanzi is to her. She states frankly that she has never relied on anyone else, nor has she ever cared what others think of her.

Even as a child, Ting had an independent streak. In school, she was a tomboy, dressing like the boys in class and picking up bugs as she played with them after class. She had no interest in clothes, beauty, makeup, or dolling herself up like a princess. But though she’s rejected “feminine” conventions for clothing and appearance, Ting insists that nühanzi is about personality, not looks. To her, nühanzi are women who get things done. “They do what they like, they pursue what they want,” she says. Never mind if a woman is dainty in her appearance – anyone can be a nühanzi at heart. These are not mutually exclusive,  Ting explains.

It goes without saying that Ting is the type of woman who can get things done. Although her strong personality has led to more than a few conflicts, she simply shrugs and says, “If I changed, I wouldn’t be me. So why should I be any different?” Not particularly talkative by nature, Ting prefers to spend her time drawing, a hobby that spares no notebook, table top, or even floor surface. Once she encountered the art of tattooing, the human body became another one of her canvases.

Ting got her first tattoo in her teens, which kicked off a deep and long relationship with the art of tattooing. She started her business in 2002 while still living in Harbin. Then, ten years ago, she settled down in Shanghai. Although she never anticipated making a living out of tattooing, she has been in the business for over a decade, and despite the many setbacks and frustrations along the way, she never considered giving up.

Still young, Ting has already achieved remarkable success in the tattoo industry, with Shanghai Tattoo garnering a five-star rating by online reviewers and press coverage in Inked, Vice, and Time Out Shanghai. CNN called her “China’s first lady of tattoo.” For her, tattooing isn’t simply a job, but a way of life. Many of her friendships have formed within the tattoo community. The tattoo shop is the center of her life. Without it, she feels she has nothing.

To Each Nühanzi Her Own

When prompted for advice to other newcomers trying to start a business in Shanghai, she simply says, “persistence.” In fact, this is a favorite word of hers. Before opening her own shop in Harbin, she was taking odd jobs to support her hobby, putting the money she earned toward learning the art of tattooing. “The most difficult thing, really, is finding what you love and then persevering down that path. Many people give up along the way,” she says.

Don’t be fooled by her success — starting a business is difficult, she explains: “It’s always the hardest in the beginning, but don’t give up, and don’t be distracted by what’s going on around you. Life is too short, and it shouldn’t be lived for other people. Once you get through the rough patches, things will get better.” Her words seem to come from the mouth of some older and wiser sage, espousing the sacred rules of entrepreneurship, but these are simply the fruits of Ting’s hard work.

Still, as with any job, Ting admits to moments of frustration or exhaustion. When she first entered the industry, she worked on tattoos of every style, but it started taking a toll, leaving her tired and exhausted. Later, she found a way to balance her interests and her work, which was to specialize in the styles she liked and was most skilled at. She began working on only one tattoo a day, prizing quality over quantity. Today, the tattoo shop features five tattoo artists, each specializing in a different style.  Ting’s own specialties are Western and realist styles, usually in black and white. “Lately, though, I’ve been wanting to get into colors. It’s also another way of keeping things interesting,” she explains.

Ting’s journey to discover and pursue what she wants, free from external influences, embodies when it means to be a nühanzi. Ultimately, the movement is not about which colors you draw in or even what job you have. It’s about unlearning the role you’ve been taught to assume, asking yourself what you really want for your life, and unapologetically going after it.

A version of this article first appeared in www.goethe.de.

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